Until the end of November 2023 booking a train ticket in China wasn’t the easiest thing for foreigners.
We either had to buy the tickets on third party applications, or go to the train station to verify our identity and then use the official railway page 12306 APP or website.
Even after identification, however, I had some issues with 12306 as once or twice the system just didn’t recognize me anymore and I had to go back to the dedicated window to fix it…
But now, starting from 28 November, the railway department has launched an online identity verification service for foreign passports.
To buy your train ticket in China you just need to verify your identity online, submitting all the required information.
If you prefer to do it the old way you can go to the station and requiere the traditional identification.
Best way to buy your train ticket in China
As I mentioned before, for a small fee you can buy your ticket on third party APP or websites, like trip.com, ctrip, wechat, alipay, pinduoduo etc…. Some of them will offer a service in English saving you time and hassle (mostly trip.com and wechat).
I usually like to buy the tickets on 12306 so I can save the fee. They have an English version of the website but sometimes it doesn’t work that well: pages may crash or report some kind of error. With a little patience you will get your ticket anyway,
Even if I usually prefer webpages to APPs, I have to say that in this case the APP is much faster and user friendly.
As you can see from the images everything is pretty clear. It’s also easy to insert the passengers details as you will save them once and just select the names at the moment of the purchase.
I linked my Chinese credit card to the app so payment is even easier.
If you cannot access the official app for any reason (problems with identification, telephone number, method of payment….), the easiest way is getting your tickets through trip.com or wechat, they both have an excellent costumer care service in English.
REMEMBER: you can buy ticket on 12306 only from 5am to 1 am (or 11.30 om on Thursdays...don't ask me why)
How to book with WeChat
If you are planning a trip to China or already live here you know you cannot live without WeChat.
One of the many services that this super APP offers is buying tickets for trains and flights, it's super easy, just follow the steps below:
Pay attention when selecting your station
When booking your train ticket in China you need to know that some cities has the same name but are written with different characters, and that most cities have more than one station.
I recommend you check on baidu maps which is the one you need.
My city, Nanjing, has 3 stations!
When to buy your ticket
Unfortunately, you will be able to buy your ticket only 15 days before departure. Tickets sales open at different times according to the train station of departure.
During national holiday it’s almost impossible to buy a ticket when the sale opens, so you need to queue and wait for a ticket to be available for you. You can book multiple trains and the system will assign one for you. I never did that as I like to have everything planned in advance, but some friends told me that they usually get their tickets in one or 2 days.
Some third party agencies will let you book far in advance, but they will be able to actually buy the tickets 15 days before departure, like anybody else.
How to board the train
The best thing about trains in China is that most of the times you don't need to print a ticket!
If your purchase shows "electronic ticket" you just need to go to the station and get inside scanning your passport (sometimes you will need an agent to do that manually).
Remember that Chinese stations are sometimes HUGE, they look like our airports and have strict security baggage checking. You will need to be there plenty of time before departure.